Casting is nearly complete for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival’s exciting 39th season: Twelfth Night, Hamlet, and Broadway hit Peter and the Starcatcher.

ISF’s annual audition tour kicks off each September, just one month after the previous festival closes. Professional actors from around the country submit an audition via video, and artistic director Kevin Rich travels to several cities, theatre festivals, and graduate schools to hold in-person auditions, a process which takes several months. The directors of each production then weigh in, and a company of actors—usually around 15 out of approximately 750 submissions—is selected to perform in all three productions.

Milwaukee-based Deborah Staples, who stunned ISF audiences in 2014 with her portrayals of Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth, will headline the 2016 season’s cast with her return to play the title role in Hamlet.

“This idea was sparked that summer in 2014, when Deb had to get her hair cut short in order to wear wigs in the two productions she was in,” said Rich. “She walked into rehearsal one day with a page-boy haircut and wearing cargo pants, and I thought, she looks like Hamlet.”

Gender-bending has always been a common element of Shakespeare’s plays; ISF produced an all-male production of Much Ado About Nothing in 2014, and the company is excited to feature a woman in a male role this summer.

“Deb is one of the best classical actors in the country, and more than deserving of the most famous role in Shakespeare’s canon,” said Rich. “I can’t wait to see what she brings to the role, and I’m not alone; fans of hers from Madison and Milwaukee called our box office on the day we opened sales in December to snatch up subscriptions.”

The next step for ISF’s casting process is to select of company of seven student interns, who form the Theatre for Young Audiences company for the summer, as well as play understudy and ensemble roles alongside the professional company.

“For many of our students, ISF is their first professional theatre experience, and this internship opens a lot of doors for them,” said Rich.